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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Psycho Candy

I'm reading Steven Johnson's new book, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Unlike many academic books about media, performance and culture, Johnson's books are very accessible. I've previously enjoyed his Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate very much. His writing style is a good way for anyone not used to reading scholarly works to get into cultural studies, without being put off by lots of jargon or mind-numbing theorectical posturing.

The premise Johnson presents in this book is quite controversial, but he presents his argument in a very convincing way. Everything Bad is Good for You deals with the general misconception that popular culture is dumbing us down. Johnson is convinced that in time society will come to see video games, (some) television, and the Internet as enriching resources. He calls this the Sleeper Curve, after a scene in Woody Allen's film Sleeper, where scientist from 2173 are astounded that people in the 20th century failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge.

I haven't finished reading the book yet because I'm busy with a couple of work-related deadlines, but the part I like the most so far deals with a quotation from John Dewey's Experience and Education: "Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only that particular thing he (sic) is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of like and dislikes, may be and often is much more important that the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future."

As a teacher I have come to see more and more where the pitfalls are in the various education systems I've engaged with throughout my life. I have also come to appreciate that the fundamental aspect of learning is fun...and I'm not just punning on FUNdamental. I often tell my students, if I'm not having fun I can't imagine you are, and if it's not fun than why bother doing it. That actually sells the idea of fun a little short because it implies instant gratification. Yet doing things that are not necessarily fun in themselves should always lead to good things. If not than there really is no point in spending time doing them at all.
Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson
I like Johnson's book because it's making me sort out my thoughts about why I bother doing things I really don't care for. Johnson's insights into popular culture are interesting. I'm getting to think about other things that are not in the book by virtue of the way he discusses things that either seem to matter so much in our contemporary lives or simply amuse us into not realizing that we are now in the least passive mode ever in our engagement with popular culture, even though it doesn't seem likely.

The present generational gap is even less about age than it ever was. In the words of Marshall McLuhan: "The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who acquire patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be." At the same time, even if we embrace new media we should not just dismiss earlier media. After all, I am reading Johnson's idea in a hardback book, and I don't really find that too ironic.

Perhaps I've found another reason for MaltaGirl's desire to sit for an English A-level exam, even though she doesn't really need the qualification.

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